When quarterback Colin Kaepernick left the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 2016 NFL season I was convinced he’d be picked up by another team.
The player that led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and threw 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions last season, despite a very weak team around him, would be snatched up for sure. After all, the NFL has a history of excusing controversial players. This is the league that welcomed back Ray Rice after an assault charge, until the video of him brutally punching his girlfriend in the face in a lift —so hard it knocked her unconscious — was leaked. It’s the league that has been home to wife beaters, drug takers, rapists and more.
Yet the free agent remains unsigned, not even worthy of a back-up spot, with clubs pulling people out of retirement and signing players who haven’t played for years to fill their quarterback holes rather than sign Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s crime? Kneeling during the national anthem in protest at the police killings of unarmed ethnic minorities. You heard right. A politically conscious player responded to the racist events taking place in wider society and used his profile to raise awareness and support the Black Lives Matter campaign. Complimenting his on field protests, he has been dishing out money to worthy causes; $50,000 to meals on wheels, $50,000 for a health centre at Standing Rock, a plane to Somalia filled with donations for example, and hosting Know Your Rights camps for young people up and down the country.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said when he took a knee. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Instead of being lauded and praised for using his profile to exercise his democratic right to protest in solidarity with those fighting racist oppression, he is being punished. Punished for choosing to protest the national anthem in a league that oozes patriotism and even mocked by President Trump. Yet any other form of protest would likely have provoked similar visceral reactions in a such a divided nation.
Despite announcing he won’t continue to take a knee in future, instead choosing to find other ways to voice his discontent and further the discussion, he remains unofficially blacklisted by NFL owners looking to send a stark message to other players: you don’t step out of line and question the status quo.
Except their warning is not being heeded, Michael Bennett, Marshawn Lynch, Malcolm Jenkins and Kyle and Chris Long have all taken a knee, raised a fist, or spoken out this week. They may feel like they have silenced the instigator but Kaepernick started the discussion and players won’t be cowered into ending it.